Vietnam Bao Chi by Marc Phillip Yablonka

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Most Vietnam War histories on the broadcast media focus on, and critique, civilian coverage of the war. TV television coverage brought the war into America’s living rooms and many believe turned public opinion against the war. President Johnson hated most coverage, at one point saying that it was as if CBS and NBC  were “controlled by the Viet Cong.”

Journalist and author Marc Phillip Yablonka’s Vietnam Bao Chi: Warriors of Word and Film (Casemate, 320 pp., $32.95, hardcover; $11.99, Kindle) provides a different point of view. Yablonka tells the stories of more than thirty Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marine military correspondents, photographers, and TV and documentary cameramen and directors who covered the war for Stars & Stripes and various military media.

Marines, as Yablonka shows, were warriors first and reporters or photographers second. In one case, Yablonka writes of a Marine cameraman, as the next most senior in rank, picking up his M-14 and calling in an airstrike after his lieutenant and sergeant were severely wounded. In another, a Marine journalist captured six Viet Cong.

Loosely translated,“Bao Chi” is Vietnamese for journalist. But the men Yablonka writes about covered the war more viscerally, with emotional perspective cast in terms like bravery, courage, honor, and loyalty. The Marine cameraman who took command declares, for example:

“I was with the finest company of those Marines and Navy corpsman and thank them for giving me the rare privilege to bear witness to their efforts and sacrifices. I wish all the images in my mind could be reproduced because they are far more exceptional than the images I captured on film.”

Each chapter deals with a different person’s experiences in the war. To some degree the chapters are repetitious. At the same time, a reader can pick and choose among chapters, drawn in by titles such as “Rockin’ and Rollin’ with the Montagnards” and “From Hot Rod Comics and Hemingway…to Vietnam.”

Military abbreviations and jargon pepper the text; the glossary is seven-pages long. Some veterans may find the terms nostalgic; civilian readers may find themselves regularly referring to that glossary.

Some chapters recount the war’s “surreal” moments.” In one case, ten Marines on a roof watch flashes in the distance as rockets fall on Da Nang’s airbase, excited by “the fireworks show.” They sit in beach chairs and drink beer. Then someone yells out: “Get naked.” So they did.

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Marc Yablonka

Another time, after a firefight, a lieutenant had his unit call out their last names to determine if anyone had been killed. One guy didn’t answer. After a frantic search, he was found behind a boulder—calmly eating C-ration fruit cocktail.

Vietnam Bao Chi isn’t for everyone because of its repetition and level of detail. But that was the mission of military correspondents: to provide context and details that arguably escaped recognition by civilian reporters.

The book’s perspective may be unique among the number of books written about the Vietnam War.

—Bob Carolla

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Ho Chi Minh’s Blueprint for a Revolution by Virginia Morris

The enigma of Ho Chi Minh continues to both fascinate and mystify. In Ho Chi Minh’s Blueprint for Revolution: In the Words of Vietnamese Strategists and Operatives (McFarland, 395 pp., $45, paper; $24.99, Kindle) the British security and defense analyst Virginia Morris uses first-hand accounts of Vietnamese officials to try to understand how Ho could defeat two vastly superior armies and unify a country. Morris says her work is “distinctive” because it is “told from the point of view of communist leader Ho Chi Minh.”

She argues that what made Ho’s “blueprint” unique was not the insurgent strategies and tactics that have been used for centuries, but how he “combined [them] and then used the population that made his unified system new.” Through an exhaustive use of interviews, Morris thoughtfully examines Ho’s use of female couriers, his implementation of both regular and irregular armies; and his deft approach to communications and logistics, mass propaganda campaigns, and domestic and international diplomacy. Ho’s nationalist vision of an independent and unified Vietnam, Morris shows, never wavered.

Almost all serious works on Ho Chi Minh center on one question: Was he, as the historian Sophie Quinn-Judge described him, the “Nationalist Saint” of Vietnam, or was he the “Machiavellian Apparatchik” of the Chinese and Soviets?

Morris’ work places Ho squarely in the first camp. Her enthusiasm for the subjects in her book is palpable, but this sympathetic portrayal impugns an objective treatment of the material as Morris either belittles or ignores the violence and terror of the communist system. There is no mention of the more than one million Vietnamese who fled North Vietnam in 1954, the thought reform campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s that persecuted so-called “class enemies,” and the North Vietnamese tactic of placing civilians in harm’s way to use casualties for propaganda purposes.

In sections on the communist infiltration into the South Vietnamese government and other organizations, when direct propaganda or blackmail proves ineffective, Morris casually mentions that targets were “eventually killed.” The land reforms that led to the deaths of thousands were Ho’s “concession” to the Chinese and the Soviets, she writes, for their financial and military support. These tactics, though abhorrent, were effective, but are not part of the “blueprint.”

The implication of the title is that Ho Chi Minh’s blueprint is transferrable, but Morris does not make this case. Though it is implicit in her work, she misses the key element of all successful revolutions: the cult of personality in leaders as disparate as Mao, Nehru, Lenin, Castro, and Tito.

The book would have been strengthened with an examination into the myth making of “Uncle Ho.” One question not answered: When he was internally criticized in the early 1960s and ultimately forced out of the leadership by Le Duan, why was Ho willing to become a ceremonial figurehead?

Morris asserts that few people understand the strategies behind Ho’s blueprint, but this does not stand up to scrutiny. In her epilogue, she lists the banal, self-help tactics that Ho employed:

“Have a clear objective and robust strategy on how to achieve it. Create a strong brand. Use the people and utilize their traits, strengths and weaknesses… Be diplomatic. Form alliances.” In trying to prove that the blueprint was unique, Morris may be missing that it was Ho Chi Minh who was inimitable.

Virginia Morris

The book’s strength is its use of primary-source interviews. Here, Morris’ efforts are exemplary. Although the sources are generally put in context, more analysis and narrative would have elevated the prose. Quotes from the sources generally run over a page, which weakens the narrative integrity.

The use of maps and diagrams is mostly effective, but some are presented in a level of detail that renders them challenging to follow.

Despite these shortcomings, Ho Chi Minh’s Blueprint for Revolution is a welcome and important work on the conundrum of Ho Chi Minh.

–Daniel R. Hart

 

Don’t Thank Me for My Service by S. Brian Willson

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Don’t Thank Me for My Service: My Viet Nam Awakening to the Long History of US Lies (Clarity Press, 412 pp. $29.95 paperback; $15.99, Kindle) is a difficult book to classify. The subtitle indicates that it is a memoir. But it turns out that this is more like a textbook—and one that perhaps should be required reading for a college or graduate school course on the Vietnam War.

Brian Willson commanded an Air Force combat security unit at Phan Rang Air Base in Vietnam. After coming home from the war, Willson went to law school and ended up as a peace advocate, taking on the criminal justice system and the foreign policies of the U.S. In a terrible accident during a protest, Willson lost both legs while attempting to block a train carrying weapons to Central America in 1987. The accident—which Willson writes about in his 2011 book, Blood on the Tracks—did not deter him. His new book is clearly the work of a man who is passionate about justice, and who puts in the hard work of research.

Willson, however, has crammed too much material into this book. There really are two books in one. The opening pages and the last chapter contain his personal stories, with an especially interesting recounting of his first day in country. The first eight chapters are a history book, a Howard Zinn-like perspective with lots and lots of footnotes.

This history covers a wide range of topics, from a review of the theft of the land of America’s indigenous inhabitants to Cold War hysteria, and just about everything in-between. There is a history of the fighting in Vietnam, a history of the social justice fights in America, and much more. It is exhausting.

One wishes that Willson could have broken this up into two—or even three—different books. And that he was a better writer.

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Willson

But don’t let that scare you away from this book. Don’t Thank Me for My Service is a historical resource with an important perspective.  Brian Willson comes down hard on American imperialism. His facts and his arguments need to be heard and need to be known.

My recommendation: Put this on your bookshelf, and look at it from time to time.

Brian Willson’s website is brianwillson.com

—Bill Fogarty

Sea Hunt by Dale Dye

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Dale Dye, the Marine Vietnam War veteran who made a name for him as Hollywood’s pre-eminent military technical adviser, is also an actor, director, and novelist. His fictional output includes seven well-received Shake Davis novels, and now—for the first time—a Young Adult novel, Seat Hunt: A Novel in the World of Shake Davis (Warriors Publishing Group, 184 pp., $14.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle).

Dye has not left his excellent storytelling behind in his adult novels. Sea Hunt is another well-written, engrossing page turner. Just because it is labelled a YA book, does not mean that this ancient adult did not find much to enjoy in it.

The main character, Shake’s daughter U.S. Navy Lt. Junior Grade Tracey Davis, “is well-occupied leading active duty sailors at the base Ocean Systems Office, but she’s hardly safe,” Dye writes. One day an old friend from her days working in Belize shows up looking for a girl they saved from sex traffickers in Central America.

The story begins at the New England Aquarium in Boston, with Tracey studying octopuses so she can better understand color patterning.  We meet Tracey in a weird. wavy image reflected in the tank glass.

“Shaggy and disheveled,” she says. “I look like Aquaman with boobs.”

Before this small novel is wrapped up, Tracey encounters a shark that rivals any we’ve seen portrayed by Hollywood and engages in gun battles with serious bad guys.

Dye writes this novel in accessible prose with a minimum of difficult Navy terminology. As a character, Tracey Davis is easy to identify with. And easy to root for. I found myself doing both.

Well done, Capt. Dye.  You have produced another winner.

–David Willson

50 Years After Vietnam by Bill Lord

After five decades of trying to forget about the Vietnam War, Bill Lord looks back on his 1967-68 tour of duty in 50 Years After Vietnam: Lessons and Letters from the War I Hated Fighting (222 pp., $13.95, paper; $7.95, Kindle).

Lord enlisted in the Army when he twenty years old. He arrived in Vietnam in September 1967 and served as a rifleman with the 9th Infantry Division. Lord makes good use of many letters he sent home from Vietnam to his mother to help tell his story.

The letters are initially very positive and upbeat, but later in his tour he began to be critical of the war. After Lord came home and got out of the Army, he enrolled at the University of Washington and became an outspoken member of the antiwar movement.

Bill Lord’s Vietnam War story doesn’t dwell on blood and guts, but instead shows what it is like being a young soldier in a war zone. Among many other things, he discusses what he carried in his pack, inflated enemy body counts, and the dangers of “paddy foot.” I loved his description of the hated C-rat, Ham and Lima beans:

“You opened the can and stared at a vomit glaze of green slimy nuggets encased in a congealed white lardy fat substance.”

One chapter deals with the death of a friend in a friendly-fire accident and the moving experience of visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and seeing his friend’s name on The Wall.

Bill Lord went on to a long, distinguished broadcasting career, including serving as an NBC News correspondent and as news director and general manager of WJLA-TV, the ABC News affiliate in Washington, D.C. His many broadcasting honors include the Peabody Award, the duPont-Columbia Award,  and multiple Emmy Awards.

Lord is an excellent writer, and highly recommend his book.

Mark S. Miller

RVN by Tim Gingras

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Tim Gingras is a former U. S. Navy Corpsman who served on active duty in the 1970s.  In his novel, RVN (Outskirts Press, 156 pp., $28.95, hardcover; $14.95, paper; $8.99, Kindle) eighteen-year-old Charlie Kinane is drafted at the height of the Vietnam War. He avoids going into the Army by joining the Navy as a hospital corpsman. He chooses pharmacy tech training, thinking that would keep him out of blood-and-guts experiences.

Then Charlie goes to Vietnam and is send to the 3rd Marine Division at Khe Sanh, a base  infamous for being constantly under heavy attack. Charlie’s primary duty is to keep track of medical supplies, especially controlled medications used for the treatment of pain. When Charlie is sent as a replacement corpsman on an overnight search-and-destroy mission outside the wire, he confronts everything he had been working hard to avoid.

Charlie keeps close track of the days he spends in Vietnam. He had to put in a one-year tour of duty that it would end in August 1967, so if he survived, he would hold the military to “this one-year thing,” as he refers to it. (I believe that in the Marines the Vietnam War tour of duty was thirteen months.)

Charlie’s duties include dealing with malaria, trench foot, leaches, delousing, burns, nausea, and countless other medical things including suturing. He works with female personnel and feels so strongly about one nurse’s  bad qualities that he discusses fragging her. He ultimately decides that fragging is “basically murder,” which he was against personally.

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Tim Gingras

Movies were available for Marines stationed on base and they watched The Sand Pebbles, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, The Dirty Dozen, and Charlie’s favorite, In Like Flint.

I recommend this small but interesting book to all who are curious about the life of a Navy Corpsman in the Vietnam War.

–David Willson

Blue Ghost: Reveille by John W. Harris

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John W. Harris’ Blueghost Reveille (Page Publishing, 162 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $14.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a Vietnam War memoir coming fifty years after the author was drafted into Army in May 1968.

Harris divides his book into seventy vignettes, each offering a picture of his life as member of F Troop of the Eighth Cavalry (the “Blue Ghosts”). F Troops was an autonomous unit assigned to the Americal Division consisting of an infantry platoon, an aerial scout platoon, and an armed aerial rocketry platoon.

The infantrymen served as the ground recon and rescue wing of the troop. The platoon, nominally composed of forty infantry soldiers, rarely reached that number. For most of Harris’ tour, the number was in the twenties.

After he finished AIT. Harris was selected to attend a special NCO school at Fort Benning. Following “Shake and Bake” school, he found himself a buck sergeant after less than a year in the Army and on the way to Vietnam to become a squad leader. Despite his inexperience, after Harris got his feet on the ground he quickly adjusted to his new role and responsibilities as a twenty-two-year-old NCO.

Writing with honesty and humor, John Harris walks the reader through the tasks and operations of an infantry platoon. He carefully explains the terminology for the non-initiated. From his arrival in Vietnam on a commercial airliner to his return to Fort Lewis and his discharge a year later, Harris entertains the reader with one adventure after another.

There are hair-raising moments of small unit combat. There are other, less-dangerous vignettes, as Harris covers the mundane and the heroism equally with clarity and detail.  Each of his brief portraits is self-contained, yet the narrative flows with ease.

Of the many stories Harris relates, none is more exemplary than that of Roger Caruthers, his heroism in Vietnam, and his post-war life in a wheelchair. Harris describes Caruthers as a hero in civilian life as an uncle educating three nieces. Caruthers went on to help many others despite his own infirmities with a smile and a happy story for all.

In a fitting tribute, Harris concludes the book with a very poignant piece titled, “Why Did You Go and Leave Me?”

This is a short book filled with honest emotions that’s enjoyable and easy to read. I recommend it anyone, young and old, who seeks a glimpse into the life a citizen soldier sent off to war in a foreign land.

–Bud Alley